NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

February 4, 2014

Changes proposed to state's gun laws

By Andy Metzger
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

---- — BOSTON -- All private firearms sales should be completed through a licensed dealer, live-fire training should be required for those seeking a license, and the state should comply in a limited capacity with the National Instant Background Check System, according to the long-awaited recommendations of a team of experts advising House Speaker Robert DeLeo on gun policy.

While concluding that Massachusetts “already has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation,” DeLeo’s Committee to Reduce Gun Violence offered 44 recommendations on Monday to reduce gun violence and gun suicide, to improve public safety, and to standardize gun licensure throughout the state.

“Virtually every gun begins as a legal gun, in the hands of someone who passed a background check,” the task force wrote in a 23-page report, noting that most gun owners handle their weapons lawfully, and suicide is the leading cause of gun deaths.

Some recommendations could be greeted warmly by gun rights supporters, while others could face opposition, as they might add burdens for specific gun sales.

“The Committee recognizes that changes such as those proposed in this report may be challenging, but if adopted, provides a pathway to further reduce gun violence in the Commonwealth,” the task force wrote in its conclusion.

The committee headed by Jack McDevitt, a criminal justice expert and dean at Northeastern University, recommended no changes to the restriction limiting large-capacity magazines to 10 rounds.

Many gun owners, including Rep. George Peterson, a Grafton Republican, have experienced long delays in their re-licensing, a problem that spurred the committee to recommend gun licenses remain valid until they are re-approved or denied by the state.

The committee also recommended doing away with the Class B license, which allows people to carry non-concealed non-high-capacity weapons, and for additional suitability requirements for those applying for a firearm identification card – which is easier to obtain than a concealed-carry permit.

“Massachusetts is not a state where licensees routinely carry their firearms on their hip in the open,” the task force wrote. “As a result, only a small number of Class B licenses are issued in any given year.”

The task force recommended school resource officers be approved jointly by police and school officials, increased social workers in schools, and higher penalties for unauthorized possession of a gun on school grounds.

The task force’s recommendations could start the ball rolling on gun legislation on Beacon Hill.

Rep. Harold Naughton, a Clinton Democrat, candidate for attorney general and co-chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security, had initially planned for the committee to release a gun bill around the beginning of last autumn after traveling around the state holding hearings on the various gun proposals.

Groups with contrasting agendas, such as Stop Handgun Violence and Gun Owners Action League, have been awaiting the conclusion of the speaker’s task force, which has held 15 meetings, not open to the public, since DeLeo appointed the group on March 28, 2013.

GOAL generally wants better mental health screening for gun applicants and compliance with the NICS database, and GOAL opposes such measures as “micro-stamping” where identifying information is printed on a bullet when it is fired, and limits on the number of guns that can be purchased in a month.

The task force didn’t recommend limiting the number of guns that can be sold or requiring micro-stamping, and the group sought a limited participation with the federal database.

“The committee urges that any legislative changes not further stigmatize individuals with mental disorders nor ostracize individuals from seeking treatment and services,” the report said.

The task force found people with mental disorders are more likely to be the victim of violence, and said the groups with a heightened risk for future violence are people convicted of a violent misdemeanor, people subject to a domestic violence restraining order, people convicted of two or more intoxicated driving crimes in a period of five years, and people convicted of two or more misdemeanors involving a controlled substance in a period of five years.

Stop Handgun Violence founder John Rosenthal has said the state should include “copycat” weapons among the list of banned “assault” weapons. The report did not contain such a recommendation.

The report also notes the relative safety Massachusetts residents enjoy. Between 2001 and 2010, the nation’s per capita gun homicide rate was 2.5 times higher than Massachusetts; total gun deaths were 3 times higher in the nation at large; and nationally people committed suicide by gun at a rate 3.5 times higher than in Massachusetts. Generally 13 percent of Bay State households report having a gun, putting it near the lowest gun ownership rate in America, below Hawaii and sometimes below New Jersey.